(United States of America 25 Apr 1947 – )
Bill Fontana is a leading pioneer of sound as sculpture. In as much as sculpture is an investigation of space and a way of articulating our feelings about being in any given space sound is a very large component of that perceptual context.
Blindfolded we can know that we are in a cathedral like space or an underground car park. Clues such as traffic sound, bird song, water running or the rumble of machinery all contribute powerfully to our feelings and knowledge of a specific space. Today sound art is part of most major international art events and yet in the 1970s it was in its infancy. Bill Fontana was at the cutting edge of this emerging form of sculpture. He has built soundscapes using real time recordings in single and multiple sites. The first multi channel environmental work was realised here in Sydney in 1976 at Kirribilli Wharf.
Fontana writes: “I began my artistic career as a composer. What really began to interest me was not so much the music that I could write, but the states of mind I would experience when I felt musical enough to compose. In those moments, ‘when I became musical, all the sounds around me also became musical’.
This kind of subjective musical transformation of wherever I happened to be was fascinating. The investigation and isolation of these experiences became my obsession. I began to carry a tape recorder wherever I went, so that when the ambient sounds became musical, I could make a recording of them.
As these recordings accumulated, I began to wonder what it meant. Should I make concerts out of these recordings? Should I use these recordings as raw material with which to create studio compositions out of sound?
I began to regard recording a sound as an act in mental intensity equal to writing music, with some of these recordings having the real possibility of being accepted by me as a composition. But who would believe this? Composing by listening? For these sound recordings to be as aesthetically meaningful as musical compositions required some radical solutions, but I did not as yet know what these were to be.
My search for these aesthetic solutions continued as I went to live in Australia in the early 1970s. I had an amazing job working for the ABC to record what Australia sounded like from 1974 to 1978. This gave me the chance to listen, dream and record with unlimited technical resources for the first time in my life.
Two recording experiences of this period had a seminal influence on my work. One was a recording I made in a tropical rain forest during a total eclipse of the sun (in 1976), and the other was an 8 channel field recording of wave patterns happening beneath a floating concrete pier.
My 1976 recording of Kirribilli Wharf (on Sydney harbour) was the first time I attempted to apply sculptural thinking to the recordable listening process by making an 8 channel field recording.
Kirribilli Wharf was a floating concrete pier that was in a perpetual state of automatic self performance. There were rows of small cylindrical holes going between the floor and underside to the sea below. They sounded with the percussive tones of compression waves as the holes were momentarily closed by the waves. This 8 channel recording consisted of placing microphones over the openings of eight such holes, making a real time sound map of the wave action in the sea below the pier. It was later installed as a gallery installation played from 8 loudspeakers in a space.
This recording was seminal for my work because it was first time that a conceptual analysis of a natural musical process resulted in a live recording that was as genuinely musical as music; and because of the spatial complexity of 8 channels answering each other from 8 points in space, it also became genuinely sculptural.
It was also sculptural in another important way, the percussive wave action at Kirribilli Wharf had continuousness and permanence about it. This 8 channel tape was not a recording of a unique moment, as with the total eclipse, but was an excerpt from a sound process that is perpetual."1
1. Bill Fontana, ‘Resoundings’, http://www.resoundings.org/Pages/Resoundings.html accessed 23/10/2012
Credits: Andrew McLennan Executive Producer Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Bill Fontana, http://www.resoundings.org/Pages/Resoundings.html, Cleveland, 2002.
National Gallery of Victoria [St Kilda Road], Bill Fontana: sound sculpture, Melbourne, 1977, 13.
Whitney Museum of American Art, The new American filmmakers series: Bill Fontana, Kirribilli Warf 1976, New York, 1986. no pagination